Mark Viniello, professional Hollywood make-up effects artist turned Entrepreneur and author. Mark has worked on such films as: The Lord of the Rings, Avengers: Infinity War, Stranger Things and the upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
01:06 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Many times, a business idea starts with your passionate interests. Be passionate.
Mark talks about his love of making monsters and how his work on Adam Sandler’s bedtime stories of making a mermaid tale started the whole thing. Initially, he made some mermaid tails for his four daughters and as the word spread around, Mark started making the mermaid kits for others.
4:55 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Deliver a complete immersive experience to differentiate your offering.
Mark expands on how he grew that one mermaid sleeping bag idea into an entire kit where the customers get a complete experience with inspirational and educational books, a tote, and complete background on the mermaids.
07:37 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Keep learning from people who have done similar things before. Your network can also be a huge help.
Mark talks about how he learned from the likes of Jennifer Kepler, Sara Blakley, and Rowland who successfully navigated the journey from artists to becoming successful business people. Mark then relied on friends and family who are into various aspects of a business like licensing merchandise, tradeshows, and packaging to pick their brains.
13:38 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Ensure that price, promotion, and quality are in sync.
Mark then talks about pricing and how iterated on coming up with pricing. Once he decided on a price, Mark relied on referrals and testimonials to build his business. Mark also made sure that the product quality is high and the customers could experience the quality of his offering so they feel that the price matches the quality.
20:12 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Test different strategies like unbundling a product and customer segmentation.
Mark further talks about different strategies like unbundling the product (sleeping bag, book etc.) so the overall price can be lowered without compromising the quality. He also mentioned segmenting the customers so he can provide younger adults with a different product as well.
22:48 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Keep you passion going. Most successful businesspeople kept investing initial profits into the business.
Mark continues to invest the profit back into the business as he has been expanding his product line. He is not keen on overnight success and believes that the ‘overnight success’ comes from multiple years of hard work. The focus on entertaining and the exciting the kids will pay off.
26:33 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Keep learning, keep momentum going for long term successMark gives advice to would-be entrepreneurs as follows: (1) Learn by standing on the shoulders of the giants (2) Make little advances every day and keep the momentum going (3) Keep your journal (4) Keep asking yourself why started on this journey initially.
Episode Transcript (Click to expand)
Ramesh: Hello everyone welcomes to the agile entrepreneur podcast. This is your host Ramesh Dontha. This podcast is about starting and building your own business with purpose, passion, perseverance and possibilities. Today our guest is Mark Viniello. Mark has a very interesting background and let me just go over this. Mark is a professional Hollywood makeup effects artist, turned entrepreneur and author. Mark has worked on such films as the Lord of the Rings, Avengers, infinity war, stranger things and the upcoming scary stories to tell in the dark. Hey Mark welcome.
Mark: Hey Ramesh thank you.
Ramesh: I don't know where to get started with your interview man. So, you have such a fascinating individual background and then I really want to talk about your business. So maybe I’ll come to your background later, but let's get started with the business. So, what is your business?
Mark: So well actually the background is a big reason that I started my business and how that journey kind of happened. I mean I looked at you know where you are today or where we are today can be sum of experiences, decisions, successes and failures in your life and how my business started, my side business was part of my vocation. Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to make monsters for movies. I was fascinated with monsters and makeup and, so I went my whole life like sculpting monsters gluing stuff to my face just trying to make monsters performing after college I moved to California. I'm going to give you the short version here. I was fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to work on some films and I’ve been working ever since, making monsters for movies. Which is a little odd job. It was in 2005 I was working on an Adam Sandler film called bedtime stories and in the film actor Keri Russell turned into a mermaid and so my job was to fabricate her mermaid tail out of foam latex. I have four daughters and my oldest two was 5 at the time. Loved mermaid, so I showed her this mermaid tail and she climbed in the thing, of course it was too big for her and she loved it and every day after that first climbing in that tail, dad make me a mermaid tail, dad made me a mermaid tail. Finally, I was here's a mermaid tail, so I just quickly fashioned one out of some sheet foam, it is very crude. But she loved it, she would crawl around the house. She'd flip her tail watching a little mermaid and she loved it and her sisters wanted it, their own tails to be different. So, I said fine you know I made the tail. Because I would do things with my kids where I would you know we'd play dress-up and I'd make masks and prosper games that we would play. So, they loved it and they wanted to hear about where their mermaids from. I said okay you're from the Mariana Trench, which is the only spot in the ocean I knew by name and you know we were able to google it and look it up and she was fascinating. She asked does other mermaids live down there? I'm like I said sure. So, it kind of developed from there and I thought this is cool, they would tell their friends about it and I thought there's something we can do that could have a multi-tiered purpose, not just be fun and entertaining and imaginative, but also could it, could we can send a message, an inspirational message and educational message. So that's kind of the genesis how this is started. At the time there were no swimmable mermaid tails, you know they have all these like silicone tails and it was nothing at that time and I toyed around the idea. Do I want something that kids could slip on and you know swim in the pool and I thought that, I don't know, because I don't want somebody thinking hey this will teach my kid how to swim? It's a fishtail and throw them in the pool. You know there were too many variables that I thought someone could hurt and say you know what, I don't want it and then I went back to the film I worked on, it was called bedtime stories and I thought okay and that was the inspiration what can we do to riff on that and so we wrote a storybook, then we have a sleeping bag, a mermaid tail shape sleeping bag and in trying to connect the story with the product. In our story the mermaid used their special powers in their tails flow. So, we had our bags of clothes that glow in the dark thread to bring the story off the page and we did leave it in the narrative. So, kids can, they can Google and they can find Mariana Trench is a real place and this sea buddy, that this Tiger Tail seahorse is a real animal and it's in danger. You know the other mermaids are endangered sea buddy. So, we're putting in, we're making a very entertaining story. But we're putting in real world issues and education, so kids can learn while they're just enjoying this toy.
Ramesh: So as a customer what do they buy from you?
Mark: So, our deluxe five-piece set comes with our depending on which style mermaid, we have three styles currently there's nine more, they're in development. So, you'll get a five-piece set. You'll get your sleeping bag, which is I won't say the best one in the world I'm not just bragging. The only one that glows in the dark and the tail fin of the mermaid is based on the sea life that actually lives in the mermaid’s realm. The chapter book which introduces you to the mermaid and her particular realm and her people and their culture and history, you get a bigger a set of character stickers. You can put on a wall, you get a carry tote where you can put your belongings, you can roll your sleeping bag up, put it in. And then we have a pillow, it has our logo and on the back of the pillow is all other names of mermaids and realms that are coming up. They try to Google, see what you can discover. There's little clues hidden in there.
Ramesh: Mark, very interesting. Because in the past when I talk to other entrepreneurs, the people who try to blend creativity, artistry and then make it into business, I’ve seen some people struggle. So how are you overcoming that challenge? You know there's a lot of creativity, a lot of artistry, a lot of product design is involved in this. So, a lot of intricate stuff. So how are you able to fashion that into a money-making business?
Mark: It's funny you touch upon that, that is very accurate. Now as a makeup effects artist, I’ve worked with some of the most incredible artists and creative technicians on the planet. People I work with are phenomenal. They're incredible. Some of them can't balance the checkbook. It's kind of shocking actually how amazing they are, but certain things like business, I found the more artistic the person is, sometimes it's harder for them to stick to a budget or to you know left-brain type things. I seem to be split down the middle, where I do have artistic side, but I also have the practical side. Where I can look at a budget and I can look at things and I can make creative decisions based on the bottom line and you have to be willing and you have to figure out you know artistically I think it's important to stay close to your vision. But the reality of it is at what cost. You have to carefully consider the cost benefits and the decisions you're making and how it's going to impact the business.
Ramesh: Correct, see the other aspect of this is, yours is not like an on line, the digital business right. So, you have a physical product here. So, you have to make decisions about how much inventory to carry, you know who are your distributors in all that stuff right. So how are you, can you just go through those details for people sitting at home listening to this podcast.
Mark: Sure, so I’ll have to back up again. Because you know with my background, you need an animatronic dinosaur? I am your guy. I can tell you how to build it. However, when we came with this idea, making the product, that wasn't terribly difficult. That's what I do all the time. But those next steps which you described, I didn't know where to begin. So, things I heard when we started, because I do a lot of research. I'm a firm believer in standing on the shoulders of giants. Looking at people that have come before you that are where you want to go. Look at their journey, see what they have done. So, my inspiration initially was Jennifer Kepler, who did hello pet. Pleasent Rowland who created American Girl doll and Sara Blakely who invented Spanx and while none of those are exactly like the product I have, I was very curious about how they went on their journey. So, the first step I did, I looked at who is in this world, who has done this, and I started there and then I reached out to friends and family, and found out I had a family member who is in textiles. So, I called her up and I asked her questions and she said you may want to license this idea and I go what does that mean? Licensing mean? I have no clue. So, she explained it to me and I said okay so there was licensing show that happens once a year in Las Vegas and doing some research, I thought this may be where we want to go. But I’ve never been and usually the advice is, if you're going to go to a trade show you go first, walk the floor, get a sense of it before you get a booth. I did, let's get a booth. Expensive proposition which if I had to do it over again I don't think I would have done that. But you know things happen for a reason. So, our other friends are Randy and Susan said they have a friend named Kim who has been to licensing shows. She was a universal consumer product, she's like a EP and I met her, and they said she'll come and she'll sit down. I said great I want to learn about licensing shows. So, she came over to house, I met her, very nice lady. We sat down, we talked for about 90 minutes. I showed her the sleeping bags, my kids were jumping around. I explained the story and she just kind of sat there looking at me going you get all of this and I go yeah, I mean then the next step is like how do I find a manufacturer? How do I you know get it on the shelf? She said I can help you. And I said really? She said, the first thing we're going to do is I'm going to introduce you to Joy Tashjian, she works at a licensing companies JTMG and I met with her and when I talked with her about licensing show, she said okay stop you don't need a booth, don't get a booth. I already paid for the booth. She goes, I’ll figure something out for you. I know the people, I’ll help figure something out. I didn't get my money back. I got shifted to another area like we were able to get a little Cabana for like the night, which we were going to do for like some social gathering. I was able to use Joy's set up. She had our bag set up there and in her booth, she was having multiple meetings. Like again licensing shows seemed like the place to go, it wasn't for me. If we had gone there with a booth, it would have been a disaster. Our bag setup, I was going to have a mermaid in the tank brought people for the booth and people would have come and what would have happened is, they would have taken pictures and I probably wouldn't have landed a manufacturer, and somebody would have got this in the production before we could. But because I had to be able to engage joy, I was kind of under her forcefield and she had a private room where manufactures and people were going to her looking for the next thing. So, company called my text home fashions, which is nice as he's one of her clients. He came in, said what are those? I won't talk about those. So, she explained to him what they were, I met him, liked him very much. We hit it off and they said we can, we want to sign under the licensing manufacturers, I said great what happens now? So, they said we're going to need the samples and we went through a design phase with them and it was a lot of back-and-forth and they actually and again coming from Hollywood my expectations are pretty high and very rarely are they exceeded my expectations. This is one of the reasons, my text did such a phenomenal job, I was blown away by the quality of the packaging, the craftsmanship. I mean it was fantastic. So, through my text I got to know their sales representative and Bobby and he was able to through his channels he was able to get us meetings with QVC, Macy, Bed Bath & Beyond. Right, now I didn't go to those meetings because I was busy doing other stuff. But I had my team go and you know they came back and said, we went four to four and I go what does that mean? We had four meetings, people sign on and say yes. I said great, Mark you don't understand. Like if you go one for ten you did great. And I'm like oh again no clue, so I mean I called a buddy of mine I have to do again I firmly believe to back up is, if you have an idea for something whether be entrepreneur or anything, you already subconsciously know everybody you need to know to make it a reality. You may not see you, but I'm telling you, you do. Because when I came up with this idea, I started writing down people I knew they are doing their own businesses. Buddy of mine started this holster pack they made, other dear friends Mike and Scott Stave, own Ergo Chef, Ergonomic chef knives and I was getting way farther along in their entrepreneurial journey than I am. So, I would call them and ask them for advice. So, you know that was very helpful as well. So again, I encourage anybody really sit down and write and think about the people you know that you can drop on to get information from. I guarantee they are within your radius.
Ramesh: So, mark you touched on so many aspects of the business already. You talked about designing, you talked about manufacturing, you talked about distribution and how about pricing? How did you decide on the pricing?
Mark: Pricing was challenging, and I will, there's a couple of things with pricing and this was a little, again this was actually a bit of a challenge and a pitfall. Because really the manufacturer they said that they came back, and they said you know this is what our cost to make it, I was like, I said well we want really good quality. So, we originally came out of the gate at $1499.99, which is a pretty pricey price tag and my thought was though the value proposition is there, where we fell short was conveying that to the customer online. Right now, all of our sales channels were just online. We didn't get any retail placement. So, and the reason that happens is the retailer doesn't know how something is going to perform. So instead of taking a valuable real estate in the store, they'll start something online, they'll see how it does. If it does well, then you will get placement. So that’s how that started and again I had I remember we had a, I mean there's so many things to juggle. I can touch on so many things and one of the things is social media. Social media is huge and social media marketing. My cousin works for Hasbro and you know she says that there's a major shift now as far as how marketing dollars are spent as far as you know what's traditional marketing and now what is online marketing or social media marketing. So I have a girl that worked on our social media stuff and when we were on QVC, QVC had a contact and I remember I had a comment on the QVC page with the social media, because I watch everything like a hawk and this customer, as a potential customers said wow these are really cute but $99, so that's really expensive and then my media girl said hey thank you for the comment, want to let you know the reason it's so expensive is that we have a, you know a book and she outlined the value proposition. But all the customer responded with was, I think it's funny too that you said you are quote-unquote "so expensive" and I read that. So again, being in Hollywood for so many years and working with, I found a certain way to phrase things that can be very helpful and beneficial. So, what I responded with is, I said hey June I forget what I'm saying I want to thank you again for your comment. You have touched a challenge that we've had, which is to convey the quality that we have through an online picture and that's very very hard for us to do right now without actually physically seeing the product and I went there and at the end of it she responded like a day later said, hey thanks for your comment, you know what I ordered two, I'm going to give them to my granddaughters. But I think they're so pretty expenses Christmas, she sent us an email and said, hey I want to let you know that I gave these to my granddaughters and when they opened them, and I looked at them, she said the quality is spectacular. She said, its worth every penny for what you guys have and I responded right away, I said thank you can I use this? Can I use all of your quotes? It's marketing and she said absolutely. So that’s a real a big win for us, as far as being able to win a customer over with the valuable proposition. But generally speaking and that's what it's about. So, you look at things and I talked to my sister about this, who's very smart and she says Mark you're not a thing until you're a thing. I said what does that mean? She said will you look at the cash me outside girl, which is a reality show. She's a rapper now. She was on dr. Phil. It was a drama, she is kind of a troubled child and she's like 13, she had very foul-mouthed, very arrogant and she became kind of a viral sensation and she started a website with merchandise and one of the things she was selling was a fleece blanket with her face like screened up, 250 dollars a blanket and that got me thinking. Because again like a fleece blanket with your face on it, that doesn’t cost anything. But she was able to command $250 a unit. Because of her notoriety.
Ramesh: Her personality.
Mark: Correct. But she was on stage and got known very quickly. That’s one of the challenging things mean is the marketing the advertising is, I know we have a great product, the challenge is getting it to the right people that can acknowledge that as well. We had a couple of, we've done a couple of trade shows. We did some local little kids camps and stuff. We didn't sell a single thing. I remember I was started and another colleague of mine, a friend who works in video games, he said Mark let's say you went to this thing with a box of Call of Duty Xbox game, no, he was right. Now what did that tell you? Call of Duty is the biggest video game ever and the fact this particular venue does that mean the video game suck? No, you know you weren't targeting the right, I said it was kids. He goes, Mark you've got to understand. We went into a long discussion about it, it really did open my eyes and then I started, because you know I figure and the boss I’ve got to learn as much as possible, challenging and painful it is, or I started losing the marketing page, advertising, there's so much stuff out there it's overwhelming. Tony Robbins, I listen to Tony Robbins grand cargo. Tony Robin said stuck with me regarding marketing and he's using McDonald’s as a reference. He said look at McDonald’s. McDonald’s have the best hamburger in the world. Does it have the most nutritious hamburger in the world? No, you know what does it have? It has a value proposition that people know from when they put down five dollars, they are going to get this back and it will be worth it and they're marketing juggernaut when it comes to that. You when you actually consider even after show, even after the documentary Super Size Me, which was pretty damaging to McDonalds, no, they're still around us, they're still hanging in there. So, they've really got it dialed in as far as marketing messages, changing with the times, keeping your finger on the pulse and the value proposition, that is key.
Ramesh: Okay so that's the area looks like you're still navigating. The marketing and promotion advertising and especially finding the right, the customer and the places they go to buy these kinds of things. Have you thought about unbundling your product and then see if that makes any difference?
Mark: Absolutely, we have thought about that and right now that is something that is going to happen in the future. But for this time, the manufacturer said well for multiple reasons we're going to keep with this model at the moment. But you know in the next wave when we start launching some of the next sleeping bags, during the next run we're going to talk about unbundling some of the things. But also, to more importantly is we have, this is a multi-tiered concept. We have our sleeping bag and the chapter book, we’re also developing it into young adults, which we affectionately refer to as our Harry Potter series and hope for the best. So, it's going to take the characters and it's going to you know age with them and put them into more age-appropriate scenarios and drama and it was that story now that we are in talking with a development deal with an agent about turning this into a potential TV series or film series, we're going to pitch it to some studios. Again, now we're getting back into my world having you know been in Hollywood, so I'm a little more comfortable here and what we'll do is that will give us our really our advertising will be these some series and things that people will see. So that's, we are pretty excited about that.
Ramesh: Okay so let's talk a little bit about the business. When did you actually start the company?
Mark: So, the corporation overactive imaginations was founded in 2013 and it was little slow going because I'd like to get my ducks in a row. So, I was cooperating with the state of California. I went through the patent process, because I wanted to get a patent for my sleeping bag. Which I talked about that, then trademarking the logo, I went to do that. Then getting the writers and the books, getting the deals with the actual authors and they are my stories which we write them. So, there were those deals that had to be put in place. I mean fortunately I had very very good attorneys, I still have a good attorney that were wonderful helping us in the beginning. So, it kind of, you had to go through steps to do those things. And again, it's a little time and that kind of freaked me out a little bit, because while I'm trying to do all this, other companies are starting to come out with stuff and I started to see like little similar things and I'm like I got to get moving on this. We really had to fast track the development to get out into the marketplace.
Ramesh: Okay so I mean how long did it actually take you to feel comfortable about the business?
Mark: How long you feel comfortable about your business, you know I'm really proud of what we have. I'm really proud of what we created, but I'm always looking for like what can we do better, what can we do to improve things, what can we do to give an experience, a magical experience to the customer. I mean you know Jeff Bezos I had a quote, he said, you know every business is going to fail, Amazon one day will fail and it's our job and that as long as possible and I thought, oh my gosh like that doesn't sound like someone who's particularly comfortable with their business. That sounds like someone who's you know a realist very much and looking way down the line and you know always again being aware of the changing tide and it's changing a lot quicker now than before. So that's challenging as well as looking at and things change so fast and you have to change with it or you're going to be left in the dust. I mean again you look at blockbuster, there was one-time blockbuster over the roof, it was and then they heard about this Netflix, in the story I’ve read many years before that's a thing. Like three and a half years later, the damage was already done, and they were scrambling. So, you know it happens very very quickly and that's one of the, again one of the biggest mistakes you can make is you can fall too in love with your product and your model and thinking that you don't have to leave that.
Ramesh: So now you are three plus years into the business, do you think you made that turnaround from an investment to being profitable?
Mark: Yeah, I mean we put the money back in the business, any profits go back into the business into working the next development for the next line of mermaids. Because we've got 12 mermaids, we've got three months right now and we have one more that is starting to do the prototypes right now for that particular mermaid. So, I mean am I you know I'm not on a yacht, but if you know I can pay my bills, the foods on the table, I'm still making monsters for movies. So, I'm not completely independent yet. But it is every year's been better and if you know in the beginning it got a little frustrating. But you have to look at you know the improvements you've made, you know even monthly, whatever. You just have to look at where you are now versus where you were obviously you make really far from where you want to be. But you have to focus on the journey and the task instead of getting so caught up and like oh! Why isn't this going, why aren’t we not selling a thousand bag a day or you know stuff like that. Because it's very easy to get your own head especially when we read stories online about overnight "successes" and you know and the joke is, it took me ten years to become an overnight success. That is a legitimate statement. So, it is very true. So again, we're focused on the business, I didn't want to do a product that was a one and done. Like just make sleeping bag even though I was originally advised to do that by several people. I said no, I want to do a brand, I want to do a story. I want to tell stories, I want kids to get excited. I want to tell these stories in a way where all the characters, all the books are connected, they all dovetail into one another and you know kids can get together with their different sleeping bags and read stories about their characters and learn about the ocean and learn about conservation. I think that's very important as well and kids learn best when they are entertained. So that’s really what our focus is.
Ramesh: So, if I'm sitting at home listening to the podcast and then listening to your journey, so what tips can you offer me if I want to start my own business?
Mark: Okay all right. So, the first tip to stand on the shoulders of giants. Look at somebody you admire or somebody that has a product or has done something that is similar, does not have to be exact, learn as much as you can about them. With the internet now, it's an amazing resource. The second thing is try and make little advances every day. Some days you're going to get up, you're going to feel on fire, other days like I am so wiped out today. What I and start doing anything and that's normal, but it is important to constantly build on something. So, what I believe in and I believe this if you look at sports, is momentum and momentum is key. I've watched sports games where team was winning, there's a problem, momentum had stopped. Like the lights went out in the dome and then it comes back in and the other team takes over. So, momentum, you have to keep the momentum going. It doesn't have to be something massive. So, what I found very empowering a couple of things was, find a website name, buy the domain name. Go to GoDaddy, buy a domain name. It's not expensive, especially you know when you are starting most likely on a budget. But do those little steps and you know write it down, write down the journey that's something else I encourage. Like I started keeping a journal and again that you can be like oh my gosh I forgot about that, like that sucked. You know look at where I am today. So, I encourage you, write in a journal, small wins, standing on the shoulders of giants and you know you have to assess, you have to look at what you're doing. A lot of these inspirations they say keep going, you know follow your dreams you know. Yes, but some time and no one really says that, sometimes people just have a bad idea. It's a bad concept and you either have to completely retool it or come up with something else. So, you know another analogy is, it's not just about trying harder banging against the window. Its motivated, really hard. But until it can stop and assess it, okay wait a second, I'm doing this, I'm not getting anywhere. But if I go over here, go out this open door, I can get to where I want to go. And that’s sometimes you get so focused, but you have to really assess what's working and what's not and then adjust accordingly. There is no one path, there are several paths. So just find one and don't be afraid like things may shift, like you look at Apple, Apple started with computers. What does their biggest company share right now? Phones. But I mean like it's amazing how things kind of change and shift and you have to be willing, you have to be flexible.
Ramesh: Wow! So, Mark I mean it's extremely fascinating podcast here. So, this is my personal question and I have two daughters as well and my older daughter was into this Monsters Inc that movie, did you work on that movie?
Mark: No Mark I wish, Monsters Inc. I love movie by the way. It's a digital film, I make real monsters. So, I make you know animatronic dinosaurs, prosthetic makeups there's you know other companies that do like the computer animation. I don't do that at all.
Ramesh: Yeah that is a phenomenal movie. Hey this is very very fascinating, and I think we can go on forever. I mean myself can go on learning from you a lot. Best of luck on your journey.
Mark: Thank you Ramesh.
Ramesh: It looks like it's a family enterprise, you and wife and kids are also involved. So those are the kinds of the things that the fun enterprises.
Mark: It is, and you know my kids are great, because they're the best. You know they are also like that, that's dumb. Dad, no kid's going to want that. I am like, really? Okay. So, you know they're able to keep me on what's new. Because it is changing, and I can’t keep up with it. But they keep up with it. Yeah this was fun Ramesh, thank you. You ever want to have me back and talk about something else, by all means.
Ramesh: Definitely, definitely I think we'll definitely have you back and we'll look at your journey in a year from now and see how you're doing. Thank you very much.
Mark: Thank you all right.